Book Review: Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event which Changed History…

by William Ryan and Walter Pitman (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1998) 298pp US$25

[See note added 6 Sept 2010 at end.]

The Melbourne Age on 29/10/1999 carried a story about the views put forward by Willian Ryan and Walter Pitman, geologists from Columbia University one of whom gave a public lecture at Melbourne University on his theory. Essentially the two geologists have established that the Black Sea was once a fresh-water lake with a water level 100 metres below the Bosporus. However, in 5600 BC rising sea levels as a consequence of glacial meltwater overflowed from the Mediterranean at a rate 200 times that of Niagara Falls today. At 15cm a day it flooded an area equal to England and Wales in a few years causing the population to flee to other areas. This is supposed to be the genesis of the story of Noah’s Flood.

While it seems that the geological event described did take place, there are a number of assumptions which make identification with Noah’s Flood doubtful or impossible in the form suggested. After all, one must account for the global memory of a great flood, as well as integrate the theory with other scientific disciplines, and the Biblical data. Here the new theory falls down.

To account for the tradition, common to many peoples, of a massive flood, Ryan and Morris claim that the Neolithic farmers who had lived in Europe, Asia and North Africa at an earlier time had migrated to the Black Sea region as a result of serious drought elsewhere. The inundation of the Black Sea then dispersed them and they carried with them the memory of ‘the event which changed history’. This is a scenario which does not mesh with what we think we know of the Neolithic period from archaeology and other disciplines. Again, the Biblical picture is of a sudden flood associated with rain, but Ryan and Pitman regard this as mere embellishment of the original history.

To those who regard Noah’s Flood as geographically universal, the new theory offers no solution. Indeed, even to allow the possibility of a date for the Flood of 5600 BC would be regarded by many as 2500 years earlier than justified by the Bible. On the other hand, those representing the 19th century Protestant orthodoxy of say the Free Church of Scotland tradition, as I do, reject ‘flood geology’ and are comfortable with a Flood that is universal in a sense or senses other than the geographical. But this view still accepts the suddenness of the Flood and the involvement of rain.

Two concluding points: (1) The tendency to regard the Biblical and Mesopotamian Flood accounts as much the same is to be resisted. There are parallels but also very significant differences. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the gods bring the flood because the noise of the humans disturbs them, but one of the gods (Enki) disagrees and tips off Ut-Napishtim so that he built a cube shaped boat with seven levels five times greater in capacity than Noah’s ark, and in which he was saved. The gods found the flood was greater than they intended and they ‘cowered like dogs’ in its presence. Afterwards they squabbled about the action of Enki.

(2) There are objections to the geographically universal model of the flood which may be drawn from Scripture as well as other data. Thus, Scripture shows not the slightest interest in explaining how all the creatures were contained in the ark, but obviously there were no more than could go on board through one door at a week’s notice and be cared for and fed by eight people. Further, there is currently no satisfactory physical evidence of a flood disrupting all civilisation in the ancient near east since 9000 BC, and few would want to place the Flood earlier than that.

However, the last word has not been spoken on the subject of the Flood in its physical aspects. Christians need to be careful not to read our more comprehensive knowledge of the entire globe into a narrative related to the region where Noah and his contempories lived. They also need to avoid anxiety to explain or, indeed, explain away, Biblical history through reconstructions from the past which can only be provisional at best.
Note added 6 Sept 2010:

Oceanus for 1 September 2009 reports concerning Ryan & Pitman’s book:

Now, a new study in the January 2009 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews suggests that if the flood occurred at all, it was much smaller–hardly of biblical proportions. Liviu Giosan of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Florin Filip and Stefan Constantinescu of the University of Bucharest found evidence that Black Lake/Sea water levels rose only 5 to 10 meters around 9,400 years ago, not 50 to 60 meters as Ryan and his colleagues proposed. The flood would have drowned only about 2,000 square kilometers of land (about half of Rhode Island), rather than 70,000 square kilometers (more than the entire state of West Virginia).